Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Your last memory is of receiving a contact from an unknown agency: me. Everything since has been erased from your minds. (The Mind of Evil)

And the child prayed, "God, will you make it so The Mind
of Evil is in black and white so we don't have to look at
Jon Pertwee's horrible purple jacket?" And God said, "Yes,
my child, but I must leave one photo behind as a warning
to all." And so it was done.
It's January 30, 1971. George Harrison is at number one with "My Sweet Lord," having unseated Mr. Dunn. He enjoys a five week run before Mungo Jerry's "Baby Jump" unseats him. Lower on the charts, T. Rex still stalks about upon a White Swan. The Supremes are on the charts with "Stoned Love," a song that is actually probably not about sex while smoking cannabis, not that that has any real relevance to its interpretation. Judy Collins, Paul McCartney, Neil Diamond, and Elton John also chart.

In other news, Idi Amin, or as he'll eventually become known, His Excellency, President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor Idi Amin Dada, VC, DSO, MC, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Seas and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular, deposes Milton Obote in Uganda. Charles Manson is convicted. The Apollo 14 mission takes place to rapidly diminishing interest. Rolls-Royce, one of the great symbols of luxury, goes bankrupt and is nationalized by the Heath government. The Seabed Treaty, outlawing nuclear weapons on the ocean floor, is signed by the major countries who should sign something like that. The Weather Underground, in a rare stab at effectiveness, manages to bomb a bathroom in the US Capitol building. The UN formally establishes Earth Day, signaling that the environmental movement has thoroughly gotten underway, and also manages the Convention on Psychotropic Substances, formalizing an international effort to crack down on psychedelics. But perhaps most importantly, it's Decimalization Day! One of the things that most firmly sticks the UNIT era in the 1970s was the fact that back in Season 7, it visibly used pre-decimal currency. All that comes to an end and we finally learn that Susan was Right as, on February 15th, the UK adopts decimal currency.

While on television, it's The Mind of Evil. One of the last "missing stories," like chunks of The Ambassadors of Death, it exists only in black and white now despite having originally been transmitted in color. The result is a mixed bag for the story. On the one hand, the general consensus is that The Mind of Evil actually looks better in black and white than it did in color. On the other hand, being in black and white has left this one of the least remarked upon Pertwee stories (On the Doctor Who Ratings Guide, it has the fourth fewest reviews of any of the Pertwee stories).

Although it may not prove useful through to the end of the Pertwee era, at the moment it is useful to think of the Pertwee era as fundamentally schizoid. There are, if you will, the Two Pertwees. The first is a strange, almost postmodern show that repeatedly highlights the absurdity of its own premises (c.f. Terror of the Autons) or deconstructs them to reveal their inadequacies (c.f. The Ambassadors of Death or The Silurians). This is the one characterized by juxtaposing standard sci-fi tropes with characters who operate by their own system of rules that is slightly different from the rules of the story they're in. I'd say to call it juxtaposed Pertwee, but that's a mouthful, so let's call it Ballard Pertwee, even though that's not quite accurate, just because otherwise I'll have to go introduce some jargon. The other is a mildly reactionary but very clever and fun action-adventure show in which the army teams up with a charismatic dandy. Let's call it action Pertwee. Depending on which of these shows you like, different stories do differently for you.

The problem is that no single creator or episode ever decisively fits into one school or the other. These schizoid approaches exist juxtaposed in the same episode. Some creators are more inclined towards one than the other - Malcolm Hulke, Robert Holmes, and Katy Manning all tend to push towards the Ballard. Terrance Dicks, Jon Pertwee, and, somewhat oddly, Barry Letts tend to push towards the action. But The Mind of Evil, more than any other Pertwee story to date, manages to obtain some level of purity in one direction or the other: the action one.

The first thing that is immediately clear looking at this story is that there is a level of polish to it that past stories haven't. Houghton, coming off of Inferno, has cracked how to write for Pertwee better than anyone else has to date. He keeps the Doctor on the back foot through large swaths of the story, having him be assaulted by the Keller Machine and terrorized into submission multiple times. Because Pertwee is functioning so much as the charismatic leading man, having him be genuinely harmed by the machine - broken down to a barely able to stand exhaustion - is genuinely scary. Houghton, having seen what Pertwee was best at in Inferno, has now written a script that has as much of that as possible.

On top of that, Houghton manages to get a wonderful amount of texture and atmosphere to the story. The peace conference, for all its faults, gives the story a tangibly global scale instead of the implied global scale of most stories. Even if we only see people from the UK, US, and China in the course of the conference, the fact that the Doctor is involved in a global affair like this instead of showing up somewhere else within the home countries gives this story a new impact. Similarly, putting the Doctor in the midst of a prison riot is a case of using the earthbound setting to put the Doctor into a situation that it's genuinely difficult to imagine past incarnations appearing in. This is using the opportunities given by the setting in a way the show hasn't done yet. (Ironic that the Earth setting should finally be used this well on the story where the Doctor flashes back to his many alien encounters.)

And on top of that, there are a multitude of little touches that work here. Having the first of the Doctor's nightmares be a post-traumatic flashback to Inferno and watching a world destroyed is a moment more powerful than anything in the ill-paced and sloppily plotted conclusion to that story. Having the Master attacked by the Keller Machine so that we see our villain writhing in pain and scared is a brilliant way to ratchet the stakes up higher and make the machine look really scary (which it risks not doing in a story that already has the Master and a nerve gas nuclear missile), and having his worst fear be the Doctor standing over him and laughing at him is a moment that awards him more mythic status than the Troughton era ever managed to give the Cybermen. And there's an absolutely gorgeous sequence in the fifth episode where the action cuts back and forth between the Doctor and UNIT as the Doctor attempts to escape the prison and UNIT readies a helicopter to fly over the prison. The action switches back and forth repeatedly over several mnutes until finally the two sequences converge into one sequence as the Doctor tries to signal the helicopter. Then the previously interlaced sequences separate, and the camera stays fixedly with the Doctor when whether or not the Doctor is going to be OK depends entirely on what's going on in the UNIT thread of the plot right then. It's the sharpest use of editing that Doctor Who has done to date.

There's no two ways about it. For 1971, this is very well made television. There's a reason the show was so popular through these years. One of them is that it did things like this effectively. I have no trouble understanding why the more action Pertwee stories are beloved to so many people.

But they're not beloved to me. Action Pertwee just isn't the show I enjoy. This is not a show about a man with a magic box who can go anywhere and meet anyone, and does. It's a show about a smug man with a big nose who saves the world from bad guys and is sometimes kind of a bully. It's a very, very good show about a smug man with a big nose. But I want a show that, along with its thrills and innovation, tries to challenge me as a viewer. I want something that tries to show me things I've never seen before. For all its faults, Terror of the Autons did that better than anything thus far in the Pertwee era. For all its triumphs, this does it worse. And as a result, I find it frustrating.

There's no one thing that does it in, although there is one aspect of the story that grates more than others. Rather, it is that almost every aspect of the production has gone just a little further in the directions I find frustrating. For instance, UNIT is as far from their "investigators of the unexplained" brief from The Invasion as they've ever been, somehow being responsible for running security at a peace conference. There's nothing wrong with running security at a peace conference - a plot point along those lines forms the series finale of The Sandbaggers, one of my favorite TV series ever. It's just that it's yet another step towards the Doctor working for a generic military operation. And yes, all the standard litany about how he's got to do something to make ends meet on Earth apply, but we've gone through that - he signs up with the Brigadier almost immediately, with no effort to investigate other possibilities, and sticks by him through thick, thin, and genocide.

On top of that, you've got the Brigadier casually calling a D-Notice on a story, which is one of the more chilling moments of the series not to be intended as one. The Master, who on his first appearance was at least an entertaining villain, is wheeled on in order to give the story a black hat character and is stuck being a generic Bond villain with generic criminal henchmen. Jo, charming in her first appearance, is shoved to the sidelines here. And while I'm not foolish enough to expect Jo Grant to be a feminist icon, here, as one of the story's two significant female characters, she's simply shoved off to the sidelines and abandoned there.

Then there's the casual racism. And it is intensely casual. I'm not going to go all Celestial Toymaker here, but really? The stereotypical Chinese woman turns into dragons? In fact, the Chinese are the villains in the first place, being run and manipulated by The Master, himself the very image of the vaguely foreign svengali from Shiftystan? The horrid entry theme when Chin Lee makes her first appearance? The Doctor concluding that because a Chinese woman was involved in installing the Keller Machine, there must be a link between it and Chin Lee, despite there being no other evidence than the fact that apparently one of the half billion Chinese women in the world was involved in both? It's nothing major. It's just a smattering of little obnoxiousnesses someone should have known better than.

But the real problem here, for me, is the central premise. A machine that drains the evil out of people. Now Phil, I hear you saying in the comments, that's a great idea. No. A machine that turns aggressive, violent people into docile, compliant people is a great idea for an interesting, gripping 1984-inflected thriller. A machine that works on the principle that there is a tangible quality of evil that some people inherently have, on the other hand, is just genocidally bullshit.

And make no mistake, this script is firmly in favor of the Keller Machine. The only problems the Doctor ever raises about it are the short-term cruelty to its subjects and the fact that the machine is actually a dangerous alien that will destroy everyone. Notably missing from the list is the idea that forcible mind control to ensure compliance with social norms is morally revolting. And worse, the Keller Machine works. Barnham, who we see undergo the process at the beginning, is treated as an innocent child thereafter, with his death in the climax clearly meant to be the noble sacrifice of a simple, good man. So the problem is that the Keller machine hurts people (who then forget about the experience) and is dangerous. The actual process of forcible brain damage to cure criminal impulses is fine.

And this isn't, to my mind, just a dissonant note. This seems to me emblematic of everything that has been so frustrating in the Pertwee era to begin with. Bad people are inherently bad. Good people are justified in what it takes to stop bad people. And it's that simple. The world divides into good people, who are either smart (i.e. agree with the Doctor) or foolish (i.e. don't agree with the Doctor), and bad people, who all work for the Master. And that's just how people are. Bad people want to hurt us. And we have to stop them. 

In the end, though, given that I view the entire point of The War Games as being that the Doctor has to take a more complex view of the world than "there are monsters and we need to stop them," seeing a story where the concept amounts to treating humans with the moral seriousness usually reserved for rubber suits is dismaying. 

But here's the thing - the flaws I find in this story's ethical approach are fundamentally intertwined with the stuff that makes the story so good. The simplistic worldview is in part a consequence of making the Keller Machine truly terrifying. The reason the clever editing is so effective is that it amps up the pace and thrill of the story at the expense of slower and more contemplative bits.

And herein lies the rub. For me, there is an irreconcilable gap between these aspects of the Pertwee era and the bulk of what Doctor Who does. And the gap is not incidental to the Pertwee era - it's part and parcel of what the era does and what it is. Fans, by and large, can bridge this gap, and many do. Those that also enjoy action Pertwee simply enjoy this era as a bit of a different flavor of the show, and treat it as an odd little dalliance with a different approach. And that's a completely valid approach. I'm more than capable of it. The Pertwee era may be my least favorite of the classic series eras, but I still named my first car Bessie.

But at the end of the day, TARDIS Eruditorum isn't supposed to be just another set of reviews of stories, and it's not supposed to offer a fan's perspective (even if it does swivel the lens onto fandom sometimes). The point of this blog is to track the story of Doctor Who. And that assumes that there is an essential core to Doctor Who. And there are parts of the Pertwee era that conflict with what I see that core as being. As I said, much of this approach is the complete opposite of what the show should be doing based on what came before. The critique of the show's morality in The War Games applies better to this story than it did to most of season six. And even though this is an excellent story - one I recommend as one of the highest quality pieces of Doctor Who to date, and one I think that a lot of fans badly underrate in that it doesn't get credit for being better than things like Inferno or, frankly, The Silurians... I don't feel like I can come down in its corner. In terms of what I'm trying to track in this blog, this story is frankly almost as much of a mess as The Dominators.

On the other hand, I think the Ballard Pertwee does provide an interesting and useful way of connecting to the past of the show. And although it hasn't had its day in the sun yet, as it happens, the next two stories are practically manifestos of it, so whatever complaints I have here don't need to be obsessed over. Just noted. So let's end on an upbeat bit - the scene in which Jo beats the Doctor in checkers is a delightful bit of absurd whimsy, and for my money the best bit of the story.

19 comments:

  1. Of course the Chinese political context is as relevant as the UK one. Mao had been as good as deified, Lin Biao was still alive and intellectuals were still mucking out the pig sheds. Chinese embassy staff had the same semi-criminal reputation that the Libyans went on to enjoy - attacking police, kidnapping and drugging people, etc. Foreign embassy staff in China were also at risk. From Time, later in 1971:

    "In an effort to retrieve their fellow diplomat, the Chinese made two coordinated rushes at the riot troopers, who fought them off. Once alone Chinese attacked the troopers with karate blows. One Chinese bit a C.R.S. officer."

    http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,902951,00.html

    Whether or not this is entirely true, one can see how it ties in with the contemporary Chinese reputation for extremism, unruliness and implacability. Godard was still in his Maoist period, and indeed there were a large number of artists and intellectuals in the UK who thought that there was something going on in China worthy of our admiration and respect.

    Pik Sen Lim played the girl, who was Houghton's wife. Wikipedia tells me she was Malaysian Chinese, who emigrated to the UK in 1960 which would have been at the end of the Malayan Emergency. She was the daughter of a rich capitalist and went on to play another Communist true believer in Mind Your Language. I have a friend who studied film-making in Beijing, and went on to appear in Mainland potboilers as an evil Westerner, sitting on a horse and saying "Kill them all", that kind of thing. He found it all tremendous fun.

    I don't see racism in it, except the racism of employing such a rotten actor as Chin Lee's boss. On the contrary, the programme wants to ingratiate itself – China is the future, a billion tiny feet and all that, and the Doctor is a personal friend of Mao's. I think this should be seen in the context of youth culture, post war cultural change and its dislocations in the UK and the sheer lack of information in the pre-internet age about what was actually happening – naturally Doctor Who wanted to be a part of a new fashionable excitement.

    A machine that works on the principle that there is a tangible quality of evil that some people inherently have, on the other hand, is just genocidally bullshit.

    I'm running out of time, but you're right – from a socialist perspective. From the Conservative or the Christian standpoint, it's a perfectly inoffensive and intriguing sci-fi idea. What if you could lever out original sin – what if it's something implanted? Come to think of it, that's Scientology!

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  2. Another great "review", though I'd make one quibble:

    "The stereotypical Chinese woman turns into dragons?"

    Isn't this a bit of a comment on the American delegate? He's meant to be at a peace conference but is actually deep down a racist who's terrified of the Chinese?

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  3. "Bad people are inherently bad. Good people are justified in what it takes to stop bad people. And it's that simple. The world divides into good people, who are either smart (i.e. agree with the Doctor) or foolish (i.e. don't agree with the Doctor), and bad people, who all work for the Master. And that's just how people are. Bad people want to hurt us. And we have to stop them."

    Tell me, how do you feel about the Russell T. Davies era?

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  4. "It's a show about a smug man with a big nose who saves the world from bad guys and is sometimes kind of a bully."

    But we haven't even gotten to Tom Baker yet. Or Chris Eccleston. Or Matt Smith.

    Which is to say, I think that kind of show is the same show as the "madman with a box" show.

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  5. Except in the end, the box matters. If you remove the box from the concept, you just have a madman.

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  6. In this story I really hate the way the Doctor humiliates the Brigadier in front of the Chinese bloke. It came across as very low.

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  7. Looking on the bright side (and I can tell that your heart simultaneously revolts against and yearns for the Third Doctor!) you could argue that this overweening arrogance is part of the Doctor climbing higher than he has ever climbed, before he falls further than he has ever fallen. It's just that the fall is a very, very long time coming.

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  8. Pertwee is indeed the most consistently "Action" Doctor, and I can actually see why you don't like this as much as the rest of the whole range of Doctor Who over the decades. Although you're doing a very good job of reviewing Who in context of the time it was broadcast, I think you need to cut Pertwee some slack for this very reason. It is quite possible that Doctor Who's shift towards the more action-oriented television of the time contributed majorly towards its popularity. A story like "Genesis of the Daleks" simply wouldn't have worked quite as well in 1971.

    Also, I think you really have to take the age of the viewers into account when assessing these stories. In modern fan parlance I would refer to Pertwee as "my Doctor" - but not because of a preference for his stories or even his acting, but simply because I grew up watching him. In a sense I'm hardwired to like Pertwee through the medium of childhood influence. I couldn't not like him if I tried. And channeling the memories of my inner 11-year old for a second, action runarounds set on Earth, with monsters, the Army, a flamboyant hero and a mini-skirted dolly-bird were exactly what I enjoyed at that age.

    When watching him as an adult one loses this rose-tinted child view. Hence I can't watch McCoy or Davison with anything but an adult eye, but equally I can't watch Pertwee and early Baker with a critical eye.

    Personally I think it's the continual ageing of the Who fan population that causes various Doctors to fall in and out of favour, as viewers who were of childhood age during a particular Doctor drift in and out of fandom.

    I think the "reappraisal" of Pertwee during the 90s was probably down to the release of so much of his era on VHS. Hence fans who had never seen him as a child could now see what all the fuss was about, and found him wanting (at least from an adult viewpoint).

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  9. "The point of this blog is to track the story of Doctor Who. And that assumes that there is an essential core to Doctor Who."

    I have never really felt this about Doctor Who. I have always seen the programme as totally chameleonic, changing its nature to fit in with (and reflect) the current time. To me the idea of there being a core of values that define the program skirts a bit too close to the oft-repeated fan-cry of "this isn't what Doctor Who is about."

    But of course if we do take that viewpoint, it completely destroys the framework of your blog!

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  10. I realized, when I read this, that I had never seen this serial. And so I watched it, and I found I disagreed with a great deal of your review. But that's neither here nor there -- really want I want to ask is: How does the Doctor's alleged chumminess with Chairman Mao affect your earlier comments on his alleged chumminess with Tubby Rowlands? He presents both with a straight face. Both could be bullshit & probably are. On the other hand, if they aren't bullshit, then he's not just chatting with Tories in private clubs; he's hanging out with one of the world's most notorious Communists. Whatever else you might say about that -- and given Mao's body count, that isn't a friendship I'd want to brag about -- it certainly complicates the argument that Pertwee's Doctor is an essentially conservative figure. (Unless, of course, he was there as a part of the Nixon/Kissinger mission. But no, he doesn't meet Nixon til THE IMPOSSIBLE ASTRONAUT. Insert emoticon here.)

    The politics of this serial are pretty interesting. A conspiratorial force linked to Communist China using mind control to set off prison riots -- you could take that in a deeply paranoid right-wing direction. But instead the Chinese turn out to be innocent victims as well. It's interesting also that the device setting off those riots would be a device designed for CLOCKWORK ORANGE-style prison "rehabilitation." I wonder what Foucault would have made of this story?

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  11. Any criticism any of the luvvies of the 1990s made of Pertwee and his time of service is utterly and permanently invalidated by the truly awful godlike Doctor they have wrought since 2005. It is ridiculous to the point of surreality.

    Finally Moffat seems to be taking the occasional tiny step back from it, but the apotheosis of the Doctor post-2005 is not only absurdly incompatible with the premise of the show it is ostensibly unworkable dramatically due to the EE Doc Smith power inflation attendant upon it.

    At some point the Skylark of Space ever-larger-spaceship equivalent in Doctor Who has to stop.

    The ultimate irony is that everything these archetypical internet tough guys lambasted about Pertwee is essentially exactly what their Frankendoctor is all about.

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  12. The Keller Machine's principle that there is a definable and extractable quality of "evil" goes back to Whitaker's "Dalek Factor" and "Human Factor," or the idea that the Cybermen can surgically remove one's humanity. It's basically magical / symbolic thinking. Why is it more objectionable here?

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    1. Because Whitaker is untouchable to Phil.

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    2. And because Mind of Evil pairs it with the social realism of the prison system.

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    3. But, then, doesn't that make the magic/symbolism of it even more wonderful? It's Whitaker meets Scum.

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  13. Yey, another Sandbaggers fan!

    However:
    "Then there's the casual racism. And it is intensely casual."

    Bear in mind that one of the BBC's most popular shows at the time was The Black And White Minstrel Show (which I remember watching). Doctor Who could have been a lot worse!

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    1. Never mind that the main Chinese character is played by Don Houghton's wife. How "racist" can it be?

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  14. There's a redemptive reading here. Fair enough if you don't want to follow it--I'm not entirely a believer myself--but it's worth mentioning.

    A central problem with the reading of the Keller Machine and "evil" in this story is that the story's too invested in Western cultural traditions of good and evil. There's some interesting complication early on with the possibility that the Machine affects aggressiveness, but I don't find that sustainable across the whole story.

    Barry Letts and Planet of the Spiders are key to a redemptive reading. If "good" and "evil" are taken within a Buddhist perspective, then they can be read outside the dualistic structure they seem to reinforce. (Warning: reading to come necessarily oversimplifies Buddhism.)

    The "old man/new man" Buddhism of Planet of the Spiders presents a confrontation with one's fears as the catalyst for the transcendence of the self, the death of ego. And what is the Keller Process but a confrontation with one's greatest fears? The results of the Machine also seem to suggest that it can be seen as stripping away the trappings of ego. And the tremendous fearsome power of the Machine over the Doctor (and the Master, for that matter) reflect not evil or sin in a Judeo-Christian sense, but the deeper temptation to perceive both good and evil as intrinsic characteristics of the individual ego. That both rebel Time Lords read the Machine's functioning within a dualistic system which their own massive egos depend upon shouldn't surprise us, but I'm not entirely convinced that the story fully endorses their views.

    To the extent that the Machine can be read as anything other than a brainwashing, it must be read along these lines: the parasite feeds off of a particular form of terror related to a specific mind-set and to the power of one's ego, but the side effect of what it does to feed can (inadvertently) advance the victim along a path to Buddhist enlightenment.

    Naturally, the story on the screen does little to explicitly advance this possibility.

    There's also a potential issue here with certain applications of post-colonialist theory and differing cultural expectations of human nature and behavior. Given the specific contexts of Mao's China, the ethics of the Keller Process could be read as the ethics of the Cultural Revolution. Did that represent a massive imposition of one man's ego upon an entire nation? To what extent can the socialist values of the Revolution be distinguished from the frankly brutal way in which it was carried out? To what extent did the conformist underpinnings of the Cultural Revolution represent a revision of Chinese culture (if such a monolithic thing exists), versus a redirection of it?

    Is Mao ultimately a figure more in line with the Master's role in this story? Or the Doctor's?

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